What is Atonement?

by Glorious Failure

The past few months I’ve been reading through a systematic theology with an older, wiser, and better educated friend of mine (Christian Theology by Millard Erickson). Recently, we discussed atonement. He asked me a question I had never stopped to ask myself before – not for very long at least. What is atonement? How does it atone? For whom? For what purpose?

Growing up in Christian home and going to church often, atonement was part of my vocabulary like furniture in the office. It’s there. I know I’ve seen it before, but I just couldn’t tell you a precisely what it looks like. Or in the case of atonement, answer some of the questions above.

So I want here to explore answers to those questions. The first is answered easily by our friend Webster 1998. Atonement: the reconciliation of God and man through the death of Jesus Christ 2. reparation for an offense: satisfaction. This is a good start. The definition answers my first question directly. What is atonement? Reconciliation. Ok great. My Sunday school answer could have gotten us that far. But what is meant by reconciliation? Are you saying that God and I aren’t on good terms? Is there something wrong between us? Are we not speaking to one another?

Yes. The answer to those questions is, yes. And the reason is sin. I have fallen short of God’s glory, His standard (which happens to be perfection, by the way). Scripture teaches that every person finds himself in this position (Rom 3.23), which shows us everyone is in need of atonement then, right? If everyone has problems in their relationship with God, then everyone needs a remedy – reconciliation. Who needs atonement? Everyone. But how?

Our working definition states that reconciliation comes through the death of Christ. But I have difficulty accepting this at face value. Someone else dying for my wrong makes no sense to me whatsoever. How exactly does His death atone – reconcile- my sin to God? It seems to me that if I’ve wronged God, then I need to do something to make it right. I could offer to fix what I broke, or perhaps get him a gift – you know a peace offering – to make Him happy. “It’s my mess. I’ll clean it up.” I reason. That makes sense to me. That’s what I do in human relationships.

The trouble here, is that I am incapable of making right my sin against God. Scripture teaches the penalty for sin is death (Rom 6.23). So I’m going to die because I sinned. How can I fix or do anything at all for that matter, if I’m dead? Let’s say I could, just for fun. What then? Do I still have a shot at reconciling myself to God in the face of my sin? No, unfortunately. There is nothing good in me that can please God, nor can it ever (Rom 7:18). So I’m completely shut down in any attempt to reconcile myself. So is it still possible to fix? Can the wrongs still be made right? Yes. Just not by me.

Enter: Jesus Christ. This is why he’s called the Savior because He’s come to our rescue! The reason I can’t make things right before God is because of my sin, because I’m dead. Even then there’s nothing good in me which can please Him, anyhow. This is the beauty of Jesus. Jesus is both alive and fully pleasing to God (Matt 3.17). The penalty for sin is still death, so Jesus has to die.

But the thing is, because the penalty has been paid, I get to live. This is where we get the phrase vicarious atonement – simply because the reconciliation isn’t made by us. It’s made vicariously – through someone else – Jesus Christ. And this is where the latter half of Webster’s second definition comes into play: satisfaction. Because Jesus offered himself to die on the cross to pay the penalty for the wrong I committed against the Lord, the Lord’s justice is satisfied. Fascinating. God is absolutely amazing that He would pay the price for my sin – that he would clean up my mess. He picked up my tab.

I know this won’t be new for most of you, more likely a theological refresher. But I wanted to share this moment with y’all – wondering at atonement, at the amazing act that took place on the cross. Such an enormous spiritual transaction occurred there. I am convinced I will never fully comprehend it, but it sure is fun to try. And my admiration for the Lord grows every time I do. May we never lose our wonder for the cross.

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